Gremio and Barcelona S.C. advance to Copa Libertadores semifinals
The first two semifinal places in South America's Copa Libertadores were filled on Wednesday in a night of great tension. A total of three red cards and two goals tell their own story.
Both games were all square from last week's first-leg ties. In Rio de Janeiro, Botafogo and Gremio had drawn 0-0 in an all-Brazilian clash, while fellow Brazilian club Santos had come back from Ecuador with a 1-1 draw against Barcelona of Guayaquil.
That away goal appeared to put Santos in the driving seat. Seeking to be the first Brazilian club to win the title for a fourth time, they were the only unbeaten side left in the competition. A 0-0 draw in front of their own fans in their tight Vila Belmiro stadium would be good enough.
Under coach Levir Culpi, Santos have become a team that dominate from the counter-attack. And on Wednesday, they had no need to chase the game. Barcelona, on the other hand, had to score at least one goal to stay alive. The Brazilians could use their desperation, bide their time and take advantage.
But this is to overlook two factors. One is the quality and experience of the Barcelona side. This was their third visit to Brazil in the competition. On their first, they inflicted a rare defeat on Botafogo in Rio, winning 2-0. And the second, in the previous round, ended with them eliminating domestic champions Palmeiras on a penalty shootout. The Ecuadorians count on a solid defensive unit, plenty of pace down the flanks, a clever playmaker in Damian Diaz and a dangerous centre-forward in Jonathan Alvez.
The second factor was the absence through injury of star Santos midfielder Lucas Lima, whose fine left foot is capable of dictating the course of a game from one penalty box to the other. Without him, Santos were overly anxious, never finding their rhythm and frequently troubled in defence. They conceded the only goal of the game in the second half, when Erick Castillo whipped in a splendid cross from the left, inviting Alvez to power his header past Vanderlei in the Santos goal.
Alvez is a Uruguayan striker who normally burns a short fuse. He picked up a needless yellow card for taking his shirt off in celebration, and was soon seeing red after throwing an arm back into the face of an opponent. He apologised to Barcelona's travelling fans as he made his way off the field. Another flareup saw further reds given to Gabriel Marques, Barcelona's Brazilian midfielder, and Bruno Henrique, a highly promising but hot-headed Santos winger.
Running down the clock by means both legal and dubious, the nine remaining men of Barcelona endured a few goalmouth scrambles but held on to make the last four. Santos had lost their unbeaten record at the moment that it mattered most.
Meanwhile, in Porto Alegre, Gremio and Botafogo were locked in a titanic struggle. With attacking star Luan still not fit -- he was on the bench -- Gremio's attacking game failed to hit its stride. Both sides hit the woodwork in a first half in which Botafogo looked the better side. This was always going to be a clash of styles -- Gremio's free-flowing passing against Botafogo's pragmatic but effective model of play. Botafogo managed to impose themselves on the game with such success that Gremio were forced to make an attacking substitution before half-time.
During the interval Gremio made a minor adjustment, altering the shape of the central midfield triangle, and their game started to flow better. And the decisive goal, the only one of the 180 minutes, came from a free kick, curled in from the right by Edilson. Gremio's centre-forward, Lucas Barrios, a Paraguayan international, was unwisely left with only one man marking him at the far post, and he got in front of Matheus Fernandes to break the deadlock, sending his header inside the post.
Gremio seemed almost terrified by taking the lead, and retreated so deep that they were almost like a team of bats hanging off their own crossbar. Botafogo huffed and puffed, created some half-chances from set pieces -- but creativity is not their strong point. Theirs has been a remarkable run, overcoming five former champions on their way to the quarterfinals. But, for this year at least, their adventure stops here, while Gremio go into the semifinals.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.